Many, many years ago, just outside the ancient city of Athens, there lived a young girl named Arachne.
Arachne was born to a poor family. Her father was a shepherd, and her mother stayed at home to care for Arachne’s younger brothers and sisters.
Even with their misfortunes, the family was well known throughout the lands, as rumours of the eldest daughters’ beauty had spread. From the poorest to the richest, even the great Gods on Mount Olympus admired the unusual golden haired Arachne.
One day, the King had called for all maidens of the land to attend the palace. His Queen was expecting their first child, and they were searching for someone who was able to stitch a fine lace sheet for the upcoming royal.
The maidens in and out of the palace over the coming weeks seemed to be endless. Young girls, from all walks of life, lined the dusty roads surrounding the city. There were ladies born in to riches, adorned with gold and jewel-encrusted dresses, and there were ladies who were not so lucky, wearing nothing but a grey sheeting to cover their modesty. All ladies were turned away from the palace, only given moments to try their utmost to stitch the most beautiful lace sheet for the unborn child.
When Arachne was called to the palace, her mother pulled out a carefully wrapped parcel from under her bed. The paper had browned, and fell apart in her gentle hands. She handed the package to Arachne, and exclaimed that the dress within the paper was given to her by her mother. She had saved and salvaged as much material as she could, and had created this as a wedding gift to Arachne’s mother.
It wasn’t much to look at. Pale blue, laced with silver thread. But her mother thought that this dress would bring out the sparkle in her eyes.
The following morning, Arachne was up before the sheep as she headed down to the river to bathe. It was moments after she had completed dressing, that the sun displayed its’ full face. She fastened her sandals, and made her way by foot to the palace gates.
Already ahead of her, streams of maidens were being escorted from the palace. She thought, “these ladies look to have skills that I can only dream of. How would I succeed, if those cannot?”
It was just before lunch, and the King and Queen were ready to see the final few before they dined. Arachne was among this crowd.
Arachne was called in to the throne room. She was instructed to keep her head down, and to bow when she reached the stool. Only when the King invited her, would she sit on the stool and demonstrate her sewing.
She obeyed the instruction, and the King asked her to sit. She reached for the plain, cotton sheet, and began to stitch with the needle and thread that had been provided. She hadn’t been sewing for more than a few minutes, when she realised that both the King and Queen, and a third person were standing beside her in astonishment. The piece Arachne had created, in such a short amount of time, had already exceeded the samples that all the other maidens had sewn – both in size, and in delicacy.
“This,” the King said, “is exactly what we want for the future Prince or Princess. This sheet is sure to make the Gods envious…”
Arachne looked up slowly. The person who was standing beside the King and Queen was the younger brother of the Queen. He smiled at Arachne, and feeling her cheeks blush, she quickly looked away.
“You, girl. What is your name?” the Queen asked.
“Arachne.” she answered shyly.
“Arachne, you shall do the lacing for my child. I bid that you should return to your homestead to gift your family with the payment that you shall be given – with an escort, of course, and then you shall return to us on the morrow, to begin.” The Queen nodded at her younger brother, then quickly walked away.
Arachne stood, and bowed on the King and Queens’ retreat to dine, and she looked to the brother to guide her. “Make haste. We have a lot of travelling to do”, he said with a smile.
The journey home seemed to disappear before her eyes. She was seated in a carriage, pulled by two black horses, with an escort of the young Prince and eight soldiers. It was barely evening when they arrived at the wooden house.
Meanwhile, word had spread of Arachne’s achievement, and Mount Olympus seemed a little quieter than normal. Most of the Gods were in their temples, being worshipped by their followers, but one was not herself.
Known for her beauty, love and jealousy, Aphrodite could not settle. Her temple lay bare as she paced the marbled floor of the Acropolis, waiting for Zeus to return.
The young Prince was a rose among the thorns of men. From his muscular frame, to his chiselled jaw, Aphrodite wanted this man for himself, but she saw the gleam in his eye when he looked at Arachne, and this, she would not allow. But what is a Goddess to do when the other Gods admire a mortal? She paced faster and faster, conjuring a plan.
It was dark, and all at Arachne’s house, including the guests, were heading to bed. However, Arachne could not sleep. She worried that she would not be able to accommodate the King and Queens’ wishes by stitching the lace. She lay awake, and starred out of the window. It was then that she noticed a glow from outside her door…
Arachne pulled her door ajar, and crept through the sleeping soldiers to where the light was coming from. The glow was coming from the kitchen… She looked around, and noticed that the Prince had not gone to bed, and was sitting in a wooden rocking chair, next to the window.
“Your Majesty…” Arachne began.
“It’s late, Arachne. Surely you should be trying to sleep..?”, he replied.
“Yes, your Majesty,” she continued. “I am just getting a glass of water. Goodnight.”
The Prince acknowledged, and smiled, turning back to the window.
When in the kitchen, the glow that had led her there had gone. She couldn’t understand it. She looked around, and then went to the window to glance out. Nothing. However, when she turned back around, the light was there – in the room with her. It seemed to be sitting in a chair, next to the table.
Arachne couldn’t explain it, but the glow seemed to form in to a woman… Then she realised. This was no ordinary woman. This beauty, sitting before her, was none other than the Goddess, Aphrodite.
Arachne dropped to her knees immediately. She didn’t know what to do…
Aphrodite smiled, “I am glad you know who I am, Arachne. Now we don’t have to do the formalities”.
She couldn’t understand why she was in a God’s presence. Surely this was nothing to do with the King insulting the Gods earlier…
Aphrodite smiled again, and stood. “Listen, Arachne. We have a problem. You see, not only does the King think that you can outshine my skills in lacing, but it seems that you have also caught the eye of the Prince. Now, my dear, neither of these can be, as you are a mere mortal.”
“Your Grace…” Arachne started, but Aphrodite interrupted.
“Let’s not try to bargain. I have a proposal to make to you. A small competition, if you will. It’s simple, really. You win, and I will bless the marriage of you and the Prince. You will both live happily ever after, with all the riches bestowed on you. You will have several, strong sons, and a daughter to carry your beauty. You will never want for nothing. I shall even bless your family with the riches to see them to the end of days. If I win, well… Let’s just say that it’s in your best interest to win”.
Arachne tried to renounce the proposal, to say that she wanted nothing. Aphrodite again replied, “but my sweetest Arachne… You seem to think that you have a choice…”
Before Arachne’s eyes, two plain cotton sheets, several thread bobbins and needles had appeared.
“We have until the sun comes up to sew the most beautiful sheet that has ever been. That doesn’t give you very long… Helios (the sun God) is due to draw his bow within the hour, so I suggest we begin”, Aphrodite smirked.
Within seconds, both God and mortal were sewing. Snips of thread, and several pricked fingers, and the sun was rising. Aphrodite smiled once again, and took both stitched sheets and hung them against the window. “Just one moment…” she said.
A glow appeared again… This time, the glow faded in to a man. Arachne dropped to her knees once more. Eros, the God of love, lust and desire was set before her.
“Eros, by the powers of all beauty, which of these two sheets would you say holds the most beauty?”, Aphrodite asked.
“Now that is simple,” replied the deity, “the one with the beauty is the one that you have created, my dear sister, but the one with the love – and this is the desire, is the sheet to the left, that Arachne has stitched. I am sorry, sister, but Arachne has won the round.”
As quick as he appeared, Eros had gone. Arachne sighed with relief, as she had won the competition that was set before her, by a God. However, it wasn’t that easy. Aphrodite turned to face the young maiden, and her eyes glowed green…
“You may have won my competition, Arachne, but you will never have the heart and love of the Prince, or the King and Queen. Good luck in spinning your lacework…” Smoke appeared around Aphrodite, and in a flash, she had also gone.
For a moment, Arachne thought that it was over. That she was safe.
The kitchen door swung open, and in walked the Prince, with Arachne’s mother, chatting and laughing.
Arachne reached out for her mother, but then she realised something was wrong. She heard a whisper, “for lacing so beautiful, there is only one thing I could bless you with; and that is to forever spin your lace.”
Aphrodite had turned Arachne in to a spider, and she would forever spin her lace.